As I mentioned in my last post, Trudi (my wife) and I have recently been talking with some friends about prayer. In one of our discussions, we zeroed in on the question of what it means to pray in faith. “What does it mean to pray in faith? How do I get rid of my doubts?”
When I was younger, I would try to get rid of doubts by closing my eyes (really really tightly) and concentrate (really really hard) on pushing out the doubtful thoughts. And when I (inevitably) started thinking about my doubts again, I’d simply try again (really try this time!) to expel those doubts. But you can’t push doubts out of your mind any easier than you can push other thoughts out of your mind by valiantly trying.
Imagine that a miniature pink elephant is sitting on the table next to you.
Pause for a moment and actually imagine that it’s sitting there.
Now … try not to think about that image.
See if you can get rid of that image through a force of your will.
Not so easy, is it?
During the same conversation, one friend commented: “I obviously know that the Joel Osteen thing isn’t right … you know, envisioning what it is that you want to achieve and then positively affirming that you are going to reach it. That’s obviously not right.”
No, that’s obviously not right.
Here is the insight that has helped me most on this question during the past few years, and what I shared during the discussion. Faith is not something that you generate; it is something that God gives. God is the one who plants it in us in the first place, and he is the one who causes it to increase (“Lord, increase our faith,” Luke 17:5). Granted, we have to cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is seeking to do in our hearts, but we are not the ones who generate the faith. As we pray about specific requests, God increases our faith according to his will.
So we don’t need to clench our fists, close our eyes so tightly that we start to see sparklers, and attempt through sheer willpower to dispel whatever doubts come into our minds. Rather, we wait on God, asking him to increase our faith if he wants us to keep praying about a given request, and to decrease it if we are praying in the wrong direction. The upshot is that in any instance when God is seeking to increase our faith—and we are cooperating with him by continuing to pray in tandem with that God-given faith—we can grow in increasing confidence that a specific prayer will be answered.
This insight also allows us to make sense of the following verses:
… for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. (Matt. 17:20)
And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. (Matt. 21:21-22; cf. Mark 11:23-24)
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)
In other words, if the Lord desires that a mountain or a mulberry tree (“Lord, do you mind if I start with a mulberry tree?”) gets moved from where it currently stands and is cast or planted in the sea, you can have confidence that the Lord will begin the process of increasing your faith—often a bit at a time—as you seek to be spiritually sensitive to his moving in your spirit and endeavor to pray in accordance with how he is moving you to pray. As you continue in prayerful sensitivity to the working of God on your spirit, your faith will increase even more—because God causes it to increase. So you pray in growing confidence about the matter you have brought to God. At the end of this period of prayer the Lord plants that mulberry tree in the sea. Remember, I wanted to start with the mulberry tree since I’m still struggling with the idea of moving a mountain ...
Of course, sometimes there will be no increase of faith. This could either mean that there is something in you (like sin) that is hindering your prayers, or it could be that the Lord doesn’t want to answer this particular prayer, at least not right now. But that’s OK. You are a person who longs for God’s glory to be manifested and for his kingdom to break in. You want what he wants, not what you want. So you start praying about something else besides the mulberry tree. Oh, no, not the mountain!